Labour forced Smith Commission to drop abortion law

Lord Smith included it in a draft report because of the clear vote in favour of devolving it. Picture: Alex Hewitt
Lord Smith included it in a draft report because of the clear vote in favour of devolving it. Picture: Alex Hewitt
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LABOUR forced the Smith Commission to drop abortion law from its final package minutes before a deal needed to be done after threatening to walk away if it remained in the package.

The dramatic piece of brinkmanship, which saw Labour MP Gregg McClymont telephone Ed Miliband to seek permission to make abortion a red-line issue, came after a week of debate on the subject.

McClymont: red-line issue. Picture: Ian Rutherford

McClymont: red-line issue. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Abortion was raised in the penultimate week and was “pushed hard” for by the Greens, especially their negotiator Maggie Chapman, and was agreed by all the parties except Labour who objected to it “on principle”.

A Tory source said: “We couldn’t see a problem with it really and certainly any controversy would not have been our problem politically.”

But Labour’s concern was that the influence of SNP backer Brian Souter on the Nationalists could lead to a more conservative abortion law on the time limit for termination in Scotland with teenage girls being forced to make cross-Border journeys to have the procedure.

However, Lord Smith included it in a draft report because of the clear vote in favour of devolving it.

But after the initial vote Labour sources claimed the SNP used a “backdoor approach” to make it clear John Swinney did not want power handed over, even though his fellow SNP negotiator Linda Fabiani was Chapman’s main ally.

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Last night the Scottish Government said it was “categorically untrue” that such an approach was made.

One source said: “It is ironic that the two feminists in the room wanted it. They were under the impression that Scotland is a more socially liberal place when the reality is that it is far more socially conservative.”

Meanwhile Labour contacted Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May, and senior Lib Dems Jo Swinson, Nick Clegg and Willie Rennie to put pressure on the Tories and Lib Dems to change their positions.

The Tories shifted, although they denied that May put pressure on them, but former Scottish Secretary Michael Moore is said to have refused to budge despite pressure.

John Swinney was described as “silent in the room” on the issue.

According to sources close to the talks there was enormous pressure exerted on McClymont and his fellow negotiator Iain Gray by the UK party and female Labour MPs.

As the talks proceeded, McClymont and Gray were “desperately trying to work out how to bring it up a third time without annoying Lord Smith”.

At the end of the final break, sources close to Miliband said McClymont called the Labour leader to ask for permission to threaten to refuse to sign the final package if abortion was included and was given the go-ahead. He then went into the room and asked for a private talk with Lord Smith at 7.03pm. At 7.05pm Smith came back into the room and asked the parties if they had any final points to raise, and McClymont made a final objection.

Smith then appealed to the other parties to drop a direct commitment to devolving abortion. The issue was conceded and the final report said that the parties were strongly of the view to recommend that abortion was devolved, but crucially added that “serious consideration” should be given to the matter.

Last night Lynn Murray, the chairperson of the Edinburgh branch of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said: “I don’t see why it has not been devolved. There was no good reason for holding it back. I think that devolving abortion law would get people thinking about it again and it is time that we looked at it again.”

A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland said: “We oppose abortion in principle and the location of the parliament that legislates on it is a secondary matter. I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that a Scottish Parliament would take a different perspective from Westminster and the Catholic Church in England and Wales holds exactly the same position as us. The opportunity always exists to try and lobby against abortion whether it is devolved or remains at Westminster.”

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